Sunday, August 15, 2004

Interactive Fictions

Last Tuesday, Grant Tavinor of Lincoln University presented a very interesting seminar to us Cantabrians on (I kid you not) the philosophy of video games.

By understanding video games as interactive fictions, we can take advantage of the framework provided by more general philosophy of fiction (about which there are some good posts at Fake Barn Country). The core idea, I take it, is that we understand fictional narratives generally as an invitation to pretense (i.e. engage in a game of make-believe).

In the case of a novel, the author creates a static "work world" - as described in the book - which we are invited to imagine. Our own involvement (including beliefs and desires about the fiction) give rise to a new fictional world, let's call it the "game world", deviating from the author's pure work. Note the one-way influence here: our game-world is derived from the author's work-world, but nothing we do (or pretend) in our game-world can change what's true of the work itself. The work-world is fixed by the printed pages of the book.

Video games, by contrast, are interactive. That is, not only does the system created by the programmer (i.e. the "work world") influence our imagined game-world, but our involvement in the game actually alters what's true of the fictional work. One might even say that there is no longer any distinction at all to be made between the 'work' and 'game' worlds. (I don't think I would go so far, however, as a gamer might enhance his experience by imagining things that still aren't, strictly speaking, part of the fiction. In such cases, the distinction would seem to retain significance.)

Interactive fictions place the audience/players inside the work itself, and so grant them the power to influence it. Here's a thought: does this shift of position (so to speak) lead to a change in our cognitive relations to the fiction? Hmm, I don't think I expressed that very clearly. Let's try an example. Jonathan Ichikawa has convincingly argued that our desires about (traditional) fictions are often imagined rather than real ones:

Suppose that I watch an episode of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer and think, I hope Buffy survives. This is a perfectly natural thing to think. But how do we make sense of it? ... I could cache out my desire for her not to die in terms of a desire for the fiction to turn out a certain way, but this also seems wrong...

I don't really believe that Buffy exists, but I imagine that she does, and this imagining plays a parallel role to belief in my thinking about Buffy. I imagine in a belief-like way. Let belief-I refer to such a state, and belief-R refer to an actual ('real') belief. So the apparent paradox here is easily resolved: I believe-R that Buffy does not exist, and neither do vampires, and I believe-I that they do exist, and Buffy's job is to slay the vampires.

It is perfectly natural to make this distinction about beliefs, and I believe that we should do the same for desires. Rather than attribute contradictory desires to me, I prefer to say that I desire-I that Buffy live, and that I desire-R that the season end with her death. My desire-I is responsive to my beliefs-I in just the same way that desires-R are responsive to beliefs-R – I believe-I (and do not believe-R) that Buffy is a noble hero. This causally interacts with my desire-I (and not my desire-R) that Buffy survive.

But I wonder if games might be slightly different in this respect? Suppose you're playing a war game: you don't just pretend-want ('desire-I') to win the battle, you really (desire-R) want to win it. You still realise it's just "in the fiction", of course. But you nevertheless really want the game to result in a victory for you. So whereas a passive film audience might primarily have pretend-desires about events in the fictional world, I think that an interactive gamer relates to the fiction with a different kind of cognitive attitude: he is more likely to have real desires about the unfolding of fictional events.

Interactive fictions also seem to be more influenced by features of the real world - specifically, the objects used as interactive props. For example, if a child playfully 'wrestles' with a tree-stumped-turned-"grizzly bear", the size of the bear may be determined by the size of the tree stump. When playing video games, we interact with various physical props [computer, keyboard, etc] which in turn influence the fiction. (I wonder if we could say that the fictional world supervenes upon the props, in some sense?) This seems different from traditional (non-interactive) fictions. In books, at least, the representations are linguistic rather than physical. Though perhaps films, plays, etc are more similar to games in this respect.

Tavinor's fundamental distinction was between passive and interactive fictions. But I think there is an alternative way of dividing up the fictional space: between closed vs open-ended fictions.

A closed fiction is (roughly) one where all the possibilities are fixed in advance. Most traditional fictions (like books and films) fit into this category. Not all passive fictions are closed, however - consider an improvised theatre or comedy performance. Also, not all interactive fictions are open. Consider a pick-a-path book, where readers can 'choose' (from various options) which page to turn to next. Despite our interaction with it, the fiction is undeniably closed in this sense - all possible 'paths' are laid out in advance, black ink on white pages.

Now, one might complain that computer games are actually closed too. The structure of the program will determine what options are open to the gamer at each stage of the game. He can choose between them, sure, but that alone is not enough to make the fiction truly open-ended.

I think that is a mistaken view, however. For one could say a similar thing about real life: "We are constrained by the laws of physics, which allow us various options. We can choose between them, but that is not enough to make reality truly open-ended." That seems absurd, though.

I'm not at all sure of this, but I think the best way to understand open-endedness is in terms of predictability. A fiction is open-ended iff it has the potential to unfold in a way unimagined by the author. (That's just a very rough definition, but I hope you get the idea.) By tying the concept to human cognitive abilities in this way, we can obtain open-endedness simply by expanding a closed system so that it is so large and complex that the author can no longer comprehend it all.

This approach implies that tic-tac-toe is a closed game, yet chess is open-ended. [I've heard that even if you restrict the game to 40 moves or less, there's still about as many possible chess results as there are particles in the universe. Something like that, anyway. Gotta love those combinatorial explosions!] These classifications fit my intuitions, though I'd be curious to hear what others think, and also any suggested 'borderline cases'.

Open-endedness remains a fairly vague concept, though, and could vary a lot depending on how detailed we require the author's predictions to be. For example, we can imagine a video game with a very strict plot which constrains the player overall (perhaps there is only one possible ending), yet the player has much more freedom at the micro-level, with far more possible action-combinations than any human mind could comprehend. We might want to say, then, that such a game is closed at the macro-level, yet open-ended at the micro-level. Indeed, the open-closed distinction is probably best understood not as a strict dichotomy, but rather a continuum.

(A simpler alternative would simply be to define an open-ended system as one with infinite possibile outcomes. However, I would rather include large finite numbers - a fiction with trillions of possible endings is open enough for me!)

Anyway, I think this is a useful alternative way of categorising fictions. For it seems to me that there is an important respect in which pick-a-path books (or unusually strict & limited computer games) have more in common with traditional fictions than with other interactives such as role-playing games, children's pretenses, and (more open-ended) computer games. I guess this is all depends on the intuition that it matters whether our contribution really helps shape the fiction, or if we're merely picking one pre-created work from a list. I want to say that in open-ended fictions we contribute to the authorship, whereas in closed fictions - even if interactive - we do not.


  1. [Copied from old comments thread]

    Lanthanide wrote:I skipped some of the earlier bits of the post, but I think a helpful thing you might like to think about in relation to games is what's generally called "linear gameplay" vs "non-linear gameplay".

    Linear gameplay is generally defined (in an adventure/RPG game) as any in which you have a strict path that you must follow throughout the world, doing quest A to get to area B to do quest C to recieve object D that allows you to get to area E. While on this journey you can usually do whatever you would like (as you call it, micro-level open-ended), it is still called linear by the gaming community.

    Whereas non-linear gameplay is usually one in which you can do very many things in whichever order you would like, although there is at least -some- form of linear progression in the game (otherwise you could skip right to the end from the very beginning and miss 97% of the game/storyline/whatever). An excellent example of this is Grand Theft Auto 3, or Morrowind.

    What's the point of this comment? Dunno, but just thought I'd drop these in as actual terminology that is used in the game community, which you may be interested in analysing or could use to describe things yourself.


    I wrote:Yeah, thanks for that.

    Rich Borrett made an interesting suggestion in an email that I'd like to hear others' opinions on: namely, that there tends to be a trade-off between micro- and macro-level open-endedness.

    That is, he noted as you do that so-called "Linear" games are actually very open-ended at the micro level. But further, he suggested that "Non-linear" games actually give you less control over the minutae. Would you agree with that analysis?

  2. I meant something like your first interpretation of "unimagined", except not so dependent on brute historical fact. Really what I meant, I think, is unimaginable. I was trying to get at the intuitive idea that game players can make novel contributions to the unfolding of a game's "storyline" -- even if their choices are constrained (to a limited extent) by the framework of the game itself. They are, to some extent, responsible for the way the game unfolds.


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